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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

As a rule, Terry doesn't interview puppets on the show. But she made an exception last year when Kevin Clash came to the studio with Elmo, the little red monster Muppet from "Sesame Street" that so many young kids love. Although they don't care about the human behind the character, Clash has an interesting story of how he created Elmo's personality and made him into a superstar.

Clash has performed Elmo on "Sesame Street" since 1984. The documentary, "Being Elmo," which will be shown on PBS stations next month, is about Kevin Clash and how he fulfilled his lifelong ambition of being a puppeteer, which wasn't considered the coolest fantasy by his classmates when he was growing up. While he was sewing his own puppets, kids mocked him for playing with dolls. But he kept at it, and by the time he was in high school, he was a puppeteer on local TV kids' shows in Baltimore.

Let's start with Elmo's song, which was later adapted into the theme for "Elmo's World," a segment hosted by Elmo which is a special feature of "Sesame Street." The song starts with Elmo at the piano and Big Bird and Snuffy drop by. And, of course, it's Kevin Clash singing as Elmo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELMO'S SONG")

KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Everybody - Snuffy, Big Bird, come see what Elmo did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) What have you done, Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo wrote his own song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Really? What's it called?

CLASH: (As Elmo) "Elmo's Song."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Oh, clever title.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Yeah, wish I'd thought of that.

(As Elmo) Do Snuffy and Big Bird want to hear it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Sure.

CLASH: (As Elmo) OK.

(As Elmo) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) I like it.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) To think he wrote this alone.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Snuffleupagus) Catchy.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) He loves to sing, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Snuffleupagus) Oh sing it.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, Elmo's song. He wrote the music, he wrote the words. That's Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Wow, that's great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Yeah, I wish I had a song.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Yeah, well, Big Bird can sing Elmo's.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) How?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Well, just sing Big Bird instead of Elmo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Great idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Here I go.

(As Big Bird) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Big Bird's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) It works.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Big Bird's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Kevin Clash, welcome to FRESH AIR. So kids just, like, love Elmo. Are parents sometimes mystified by how much their kids love Elmo?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Especially when they're - when they have a child, and the first thing that the child says is Elmo instead of mommy.

GROSS: Does that happen?

CLASH: Oh yeah, I get that a lot. It's like, do you know that my child's first word was Elmo? No, I get that a lot. But they're very surprised by it, but also they understand it too. So it's nice. It really is nice to be a part of their life with their child.

GROSS: So you actually brought Elmo with you, and I should mention you're in a studio in New York, at the NPR bureau in New York, and I'm at our studio in Philadelphia. So we can't see each other.

CLASH: (As Elmo) No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And there's Elmo.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Hi, Miss Terry. How are you?

GROSS: I'm good, Elmo, how are you?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo's good. Elmo was just in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Yeah, but he didn't come visit us, did he?

CLASH: (As Elmo) No, Elmo didn't know you then, but Elmo knows you now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you feel bad because you can't hug me, and I can't hug you because you're in New York and I'm in Philadelphia?

CLASH: (As Elmo) No, Elmo will be there soon, and we can have a play date together.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Is that OK, Miss Terry?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's perfect. I do lots of play dates.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (As Elmo) Cool.

GROSS: Now, let me get back to Kevin Clash here.

CLASH: (As Elmo) If you must.

GROSS: Excuse us, Elmo. So you've created a lot of puppets over the years, but Elmo was basically a discard. When you came to the Muppet studios, several puppeteers had tried to do something with Elmo, but nothing ever really came of it.

CLASH: Yeah, actually I got Elmo by default.

GROSS: Tell the story of how you got Elmo.

CLASH: Well, Brian Muehl, who's a wonderful, phenomenal puppeteer, he started performing Elmo. He actually originated Telly Monster and Barkley on "Sesame Street." He started performing the character first, and he decided to pursue his acting and writing. So he left the show.

And so the character had to go to someone. So Richard Hunt was the next in line, and Norman Stiles, who was their head writer at the time, really did not like what Richard came up with. He just had the character yelling, and it wasn't - it didn't really sound like a kid. And so Richard really didn't, you know, need the character. So he threw the little red monster to me, and he told me to come up with a voice, and I came up with the voice.

GROSS: So how did you figure out what the personality was going to be?

CLASH: Well, the character was already developed when I actually got the puppet. So I knew that it was a three-and-a-half-year-old, and it loved playing games, and through the games, he would learn things. He always talked in third person. So all of those things I knew.

So really I came in, and I really thought about OK, he's a three-and-a-half-year-old little child, and he has a lot of energy. So I thought OK, this falsetto voice would work for him.

GROSS: And the whole idea that, like, Elmo really loves to be, like, kissed and hugged, and how did that come up?

CLASH: I think all of us tend to try to get some type of catchphrase or something that the puppet does that gets you into the character. Like Jim Henson with hi-ho, Kermit the frog here, or say Fozzie saying wokka wokka or Miss Piggy saying moi. The laugh for Elmo was the hook for me, to get to where Elmo needed to be.

And so that's really how that happened. It was interesting. Lisa Simon(ph), again the producer at the time, she took me out to lunch, and she said, you know, I really think the laugh is really too much. And I was like, OK, I don't know what to do with that, because I was so used to it. And again, like I said, it was that little – you know, the connection I had to performing the character.

And then, of course, the big hooplah about the Tickle Me Elmo doll and everything, and so we left it to where Elmo laughs a lot and loves to laugh.

GROSS: One of the big outcomes of the popularity of Elmo was the Tickle Me Elmo doll. And the year that they came out, like for Christmas you couldn't get one. It became this incredibly hot commodity because it was just selling out everywhere.

CLASH: Yeah. I was out with my daughter, actually, in like a Baby Depot or something like that and I saw the toy and I picked it up. I said, oh, that's what that's for. And I bought it. Took it home and...

GROSS: You bought it. That's great.

CLASH: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Yeah, I did buy it. And like maybe two weeks later I got a call saying that at the end of that week Toys "R" Us was saying that it was going to be the number one selling toy at Toys "R" Us. And then analysts were saying that it was going to be the number one selling toy for that Christmas. And, you know, you've got to understand, I'm a puppeteer. I don't know anything about merchandising or products or anything. And so I just was happy that it was something positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: That's all I really knew. But it was fascinating, the big hoopla about this toy. It was unbelievable.

GROSS: So there's this great story in the movie about how you made one of your puppets from - I think it was like the fur lining of your father's coat.

CLASH: Oh yeah, yeah.

GROSS: That must have gone over big in the house. Yeah, go ahead.

CLASH: Well, you know, I just got this energy of just, you know, I wanted to make a monkey puppet. And so I saw the lining of my father's coat, and I took it out, and I cut it up, and I made a monkey out of it and realized what I had done afterwards. And I actually hid - after I built the puppet.

My dad came home, and he saw the puppet. I put it on his - my mom and dad's dresser. And he saw it and asked my mom about it, and he called me, and he said what's his name? And I said his name is Moandy(ph), and he said: Next time, ask. And so, you know, yeah.

I mean, they were always very, very supportive of the things I did. I mean, they were very - I mean, they disciplined all of us. I mean - but they were very creative people themselves. So they knew where that was coming from.

GROSS: In what ways were they creative?

CLASH: Well, my mom, she sewed a lot, and she taught me how to sew on the Singer sewing machine. And she sewed clothes, her dresses, and also what she would do is she would take some of the material that was leftover, and she would cover some of her shoes with that same material. So she was very creative in her own way. My father drew a lot. We had pastel colors and paints and stuff that he would - he loved drawing and stuff, so...

GROSS: So that's how you learned to sew, from your mother?

CLASH: Oh yeah, well, I had gotten - there was a show called "Romper Room" that originated in Baltimore at the local station that I was working at. And it was - "Romper Room," and Miss Nancy was the lady that was the host of it in Baltimore.

The producers of the show asked me, could I make a doctor puppet for, not only the Baltimore local "Romper Room," but all of the different television stations that had their own "Romper Room" in different cities because they wanted to talk about health.

And so I designed the puppet, and the character's name was called Doc. And I had to build 35 of them. And they only paid me like $10 apiece for them.

GROSS: Oh, no.

CLASH: But my mom said listen, I can't sew all these for you. I have to teach you how to sew. So that's when she taught me how to sew. And I sewed all of them myself and built them all myself.

GROSS: How old were you?

CLASH: I had to be still in high school.

GROSS: Wow, they really ripped you off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Yeah, but you know what? The experience was wonderful. You know, I can't - I was very lucky to get so much experience because that helped me - Jim Henson was very surprised at the amount of experience and things that I knew, once I met him and, you know, and showed him what I could do.

GROSS: So, um... I'm sorry, I just lost my train of thought for a second.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Thank you, Elmo. You're so reassuring. That's very generous of you to step in and rescue me there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So because you've had to crouch so much over the years, like hiding your physical self, Kevin Clash, so that Elmo would be seen while you'd remain invisible, are there parts of your body that hurt a lot?

CLASH: Oh, yeah. I'm 51 now so - but, you know, I know that physically working out is something that's really, really important. So, you know, sometimes I go away from it for months at a time and then I come back to it, because I know that that's the only way I can physically perform these characters. You know, we sit on - roll around, like, ottomans that very low to the ground with wheels underneath that we roll around the set on, and that's how we get around on the set, you know...

GROSS: Sitting or lying down?

CLASH: Sitting. Sitting. Sitting. So oof, you know, so we – yeah, we do have to do like, you know, sit-ups and crunches and push-ups and things that, you know, to keep our bodies in physical shape.

GROSS: Let me just get this image. So you are on an ottoman, hidden beneath the camera, performing Elmo while directing?

CLASH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, I block it out. I mean I have an assistant director to really - once I get out there and I start performing the character, he has to call the shots. You know, I mark all the - I mark the script up as far as what shots I need and everything. And then the assistant director will call those shots out, because I'm down on the floor performing Elmo at the time.

GROSS: So do you say things like, you know, Cookie Monster, I need more of a smile or...

CLASH: Oh sure. Yeah. Definitely. I mean if I'm performing Elmo and another character says something that's oh, you know, that didn't work. Let's start over again...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: ...at the same time. But, you know, Jim was that way too. I mean Jim was directing and performing at the same time, you know, so I'm just, you know, walking in his footsteps.

GROSS: So before we say goodbye I want to say, like I feel like I should talk more to Elmo, but I have no idea what to say to him.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (as Elmo) It's okay. It's okay.

GROSS: Elmo, you don't feel left out of the conversation?

CLASH: (as Elmo) No, no. Elmo has been talking for years.

GROSS: Okay.

CLASH: (as Elmo) Years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (as Elmo) Elmo wants to give Mr. Kevin is 15 minutes of fame.

DAVIES: Kevin Clash created and performs the character Elmo on "Sesame Street." His story is told in the documentary "Being Elmo" which will be shown on PBS stations next month. Coming up, David Bianculli on the long-awaited premier of the fifth season of AMC's "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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